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How Big Is A Cubit In The Bible

The cubit is an ancient unit of measurement that was used in the Bible. It has been used since as far back as the time of ancient Egypt, and it is still used today. However, there are several different types of cubits. How big was the biblical cubit, and how does its size compare to other cubits? In this article we’ll review biblical cubits to feet.

The Biblical Cubit

The word “cubit” comes from a Latin word meaning “elbow,” because it was originally measured from the point of your elbow to the tip of your fingers. This measurement became known as an arm’s length, or arma longa in Latin. In Hebrew, it was called an ell (אֶלֶף). We’ll also see how long is a cubit in inches in this piece.

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How Big Is A Cubit In The Bible

What is a cubit?

In the Bible, a cubit is a unit of measure that is used consistently throughout the Old Testament. The exact length of a cubit varies depending on the region and time period, but it is generally considered to be the distance from a person’s elbow to the tip of their outstretched middle finger. This measurement is roughly equivalent to about 18 inches or 45 centimeters.

References to the cubit in the Bible

There are several references to the cubit in the Bible, particularly in relation to the construction of various buildings and objects. Here are some examples:

  • Genesis 6:15: “This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.” This verse describes the dimensions of Noah’s ark, which was said to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.
  • 1 Kings 6:2: “The temple that King Solomon built for the Lord was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.” This verse describes the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, which was built according to specific measurements in cubits.
  • Ezekiel 40:5: “I saw a wall completely surrounding the temple area. The length of the measuring rod in the man’s hand was six long cubits, each of which was a cubit and a handbreadth. He measured the wall; it was one measuring rod thick and one rod high.” This verse provides a specific measurement of a cubit in relation to a measuring rod used to measure the temple area in Ezekiel’s vision.

Symbolic significance

Aside from its practical use as a unit of measurement, the cubit also carries symbolic significance in the Bible. For example, the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was said to be “two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide and high” (Exodus 25:10). This specific measurement was believed to represent the divine connection between God and His people.

In conclusion, the cubit plays an important role in understanding the dimensions and proportions of various structures and objects in the Bible. Its consistent use throughout the Old Testament highlights its significance as a unit of measure with both practical and symbolic importance.

Historical dimensions for the cubit are provided by scripture and pyramid documentation. Additional dimensions from the Middle East are found in other early documents. Two major dimensions emerge from a history of the cubit. The first is the anthropological or short cubit, and the second is the architectual or long cubit. The wide geographical area and long chronological period suggest that cubit dimensions varied over time and geographic area. Greek and Roman conquests led to standardization. More recent dimensions are provided from a study by Francis Galton based upon his investigations into anthropometry. The subjects for Galton’s study and those of several other investigators lacked adequate sample descriptions for producing a satisfactory cubit/forearm dimension. This finding is not surprising given the demise of the cubit in today’s world. Contemporary dimensions from military and civilian anthropometry for the forearm and hand allow comparison to the ancient unit. Although there appears no pressing need for a forearm-hand/cubit dimension, the half-yard or half-meter unit seems a useful one that could see more application.

If we know anything of the cubit today, it probably comes from acquaintance with Hebrew Scripture and/or the Old and New Testaments. People have heard or read about the dimensions of Noah’s Ark or Solomon’s Temple. Acquaintance with Egyptian history might have brought some awareness from the dimensions given for pyramids and temples. The cubit was a common unit in the early East. It continues today in some locations, but with less prominence having been replaced by modern day units. Early employment of the cubit throughout the Near East showed varied dimensions for this unit. Some variants can be examined easier with reference to biblical passages. Additional variants can also be found in numerous secular documents, but these are less known and less accessible than scripture.

The word cubit (′kyü-bǝt) in English appears derived from the Latin cubitum for elbow. It was πήχυς (pay′-kus) in Greek. The cubit is based upon a human characteristic—the length of the forearm from the tip of the middle finger to end of the elbow. Many definitions seem to agree on this aspect of the unit, yet it does not produce a universal standard for there are many ways to determine a cubit. It can be measured from the elbow to the base of the hand, from the elbow to a distance located between the outstretched thumb and little finger, or from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. These alternate descriptions further complicate the matter of determining a specific unit measure of the cubit. Hereafter, the latter description, elbow to the tip of the middle finger, will signify the common unit.

The human figure (typically male) has been the basis for many dimensions. The foot is immediately recognized as an example [1]. Less commonly heard is onyx (nail), but onyx remains a medical term. The Old English ynche, ynch, unce, or inch was a thumb-joint breadth. The anthropomorphic basis for many standards supports the statement “man is the measure of all things” attributed to Protagoras according to Plato in the Theaetetus [2]. Small wonder the cubit was initially employed for measurement given its omnipresent availability for use. We always possess the unit. Human figure units are arbitrary but universal are especially effective by their bodily reference producing a crude standard that is immediately accessable.

The cubit provides a convenient middle unit between the foot and the yard. The English yard could be considered a double cubit said to measure 12 palms, about 90 cm, or 36 inches measured from the center of a man’s body to the tip of the fingers of an outstretched arm [3]. This is a useful way of measuring cloth held center body to an outstretched hand (two cubits), or across the body to both outstretched hands (four cubits as specified in Exodus 26: 1-2, 7-8). The English ell is a larger variant of the cubit consisting of 15 palms, 114 cm, or 45 inches. It is about equal to the cloth measure ell of early Scotland. A man’s stride, defined as stepping left-right, produces a double cubit, or approximately a yard.

The cubit was a basic unit in early Israel and the surrounding Near East countries. It is אטה in Hebrew (pronounced am-mah′), which can be interpreted “the mother of the arm” or the origin, that is, the forearm/cubit. Selected biblical references [4] for the cubit include these five rather well-known selections.(1)And God said to Noah, I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. (Genesis 6:13–15 RSV)(2)They shall make an ark of acacia wood; two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without shall you overlay it, and you shall make upon it a molding of gold round about. (Exodus 25:10-11 RSV)(3)And he made the court; for the south side the hangings of the court were of fine twined linen, a hundred cubits; their pillars were twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. And for the north side a hundred cubits, their pillars twenty, their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. And for the west side were hangings of fifty cubits, their pillars ten, and their sockets ten; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. And for the front to the east, fifty cubits. (Exodus 38:9–13 RSV)(4)And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. (1 Samuel 17:2–4 RSV)(5)In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of The Lord. The house which King Solomon built for The Lord was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high. (1 Kings 6:1-2 RSV)

The cubit determined a measure for many aspects of life in Biblical history. A Sabbath day’s journey measured 2,000 cubits (Exodus 16:29). This statue proscribed a limit to travel on the Sabbath. The distance between the Ark of the Covenant and the camp of the Israelites during the exodus is estimated at about 914 meters, 1,000 yards, or 2,000 cubits [5].

Biblical citations and historical archeology suggest more than one standard length for the cubit existed in Israel. In II Chronicles 3:3 the citation may imply cubits of the old standard. Ezekiel 40:5; 43:13 may be indicating the cubit plus a hand. Archeological evidence from Israel [6] suggests that 52.5 cm = 20.67 and 45 cm = 17.71 constitute the long and short cubits of this time and location. To some scholars, the Egyptian cubit was the standard measure of length in the Biblical period. The Biblical sojourn/exodus, war, and trade are probable reasons for this length to have been employed elsewhere.

The Tabernacle, the Temple of Solomon, and many other structures are described in the Bible by cubit measures. These also occur with two different cubits dimensions, the long or royal (architectural) cubit and the short (anthropological) cubit. Scholars have used various means to determine the length of these cubits with some success. The long cubit is given as approximately 52.5 centimeters and the short cubit as about 45 centimeters.

The Israelite long cubit corresponds to the Egyptian cubit of 7 hands with 6 hands for shorter one. Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible [7, page 1373] states “… archeology and literature suggests an average length for the common cubit of 44.5 cm (17.5 in.).” This citation also gives a range of 42–48 cm (17–19 in) for the cubit. Range is an important parameter because it indicates the variation operating on this measure. Variation indicates multiple influences.

The English use of cubit is difficult to determine. The exact length of this measure varies depending upon whether it included the entire length from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger or by one of the alternates described earlier. Some scholars suggest that the longer dimension was the original cubit making it 20.24 inches for the ordinary cubit, and 21.88 inches for the sacred one, or a standard cubit from the elbow to end of middle finger (20′′) and a lower forearm cubit from the elbow to base of the hand (12′′). These are the same dimensions for Egyptian measurements according to Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary . The Interpreter’s Bible [10, page 154] gives the Common Scale length as 444.25 mm or 17.49 inches and Ezekial’s Scale as 518.29 mm or 20.405 inches for the two cubit lengths. Inasmuch as the Romans colonized England the shorter cubit previously mentioned may have been the standard.

A rod or staff is called גמד (gomedh) in Judges 3:16, which means a cut, or something cut off. The LXX (Septuagint) and Vulgate render it “span” which in Hebrew Scripture or the Old Testament is defined as a measure of distance (the forearm cubit), roughly 18 inches (almost 0.5 of a meter). Among the several cubits mentioned is the cubit of a man or common cubit in Deut. 3:11 and the legal cubit or cubit of the sanctuary described in Ezra 40.5

Barrois indicates the dimension of the cubit can only be determined by deduction and not directly because of conflicting information. He reports the aqueduct of Hezekiah was 1,200 cubits according to the inscription of Siloam. Its length is given as 5333.1 meters or 1,749 feet. Absolute certainty for the length of a cubit cannot be determined, and there are great differences of opinion about this length fostering strong objections and debates. Some writers make the cubit eighteen inches and others twenty, twenty-one inches, or greater. This appears critically important for those seeking to determine the exact modern equivalent of dimensions taken from scripture. Taking 21 inches for the cubit, the ark Noah built would be 525 feet in length, 87 feet 6 inches in breadth, and 52 feet 6 inches in height. Using the standard 20′′ cubit and 9′′ span, Goliath’s height would be 6 cubits plus a span for about 10 feet and 9 inches. With a cubit of 18′′ his height is 9 feet 9 inches. The Septuagint, LXX, suggests 4 cubits plus a span, or a more modest 6 feet and 9 inches. There are many implications depending upon which dimension is selected [7]. The story requires young David to slay a giant and not simply an above average sized man! Likewise for many other dimensions and description found in early writings, the larger the dimensions, the better the story. Sacred dimensions require solemn, awe inspiring ones, but this frustrates an exact determination.

Rabbi David ben Zimra (1461–1571) claimed the Foundation Stone and Holy of Holies were located within the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. This view is widely accepted, but with differences of opinion over the exact location known as the “central location theory,” some of these differences result from strong disagreement over the dimension of the cubit. Kaufman [11] argues against the “central location theory” defending a cubit measuring 0.437 meters (1.43 feet). David [12] argues for a Temple cubit of 0.56 meters (1.84 feet).

Differences in the length of the cubit arise from various historical times and geographical locations in the biblical period. These very long time periods and varied geographical locations frustrate determining a more exact length to the cubit. Israel’s location between Egypt and Mesopotamia suggest that many influences came into play over the space of hundreds and hundreds of years in this well-traveled area. These influences probably contributed to the varied dimensions encountered over this long time frame. Stories, myths, and drama add their share.

The earliest written mention of the cubit occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The incomplete text is extant in twelve tablets written in Akkadian found at Nineveh in the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria (669–630? BCE). Other fragments dated from 1800 BCE contain parts of the text, and still more fragments mentioning this epic have been found dating from the 2nd millennium BCE. The cubit is specifically mentioned in the text when describing a flood as remarkably similar and predating the flood mentioned in Genesis.

2. Egypt

The Egyptian hieroglyph for the cubit shows the symbol of a forearm. However, the Egyptian cubit was longer than a typical forearm. It seems to have been composed of 7 palms of 4 digits each totaling 28 parts and was about 52.3-52.4 cm in length according to Arnold [13].

The earliest attested standard measure is from the Old Kingdom pyramids of Egypt. It was the royal cubit (mahe). The royal cubit was 523 to 525 mm (20.6 to 20.64 inches) in length: and was subdivided into 7 palms of 4 digits each, for a 28-part measure in total. The royal cubit is known from Old Kingdom architecture dating from at least as early as the construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser around 2,700 BCE [1315].

Petrie [15] begins Chapter XX the following. Values of the Cubit and Digit writing.

The measurements which have been detailed in the foregoing pages supply materials for an accurate determination of the Egyptian cubit. From such a mass of exact measures, not only may the earliest value of the cubit be ascertained, but also the extent of its variations as employed by different architects.

Petrie’s methods and findings are so clearly and precisely described they can best be quoted as follows.

For the value of the usual cubit, undoubtedly the most important source is the King-s Chamber in the Great Pyramid; that is the most accurately wrought, the best preserved, and the most exactly measured, of all the data that are known.

Arranging the examples chronologically, the cubit used was as shown in Table 3.

Petrie writes the following.

For the cubit I had deduced ([16, page 50]) from a quantity of material, good, bad, and indifferent, 20–64  .02 as the best result that I could get; about a dozen of the actual cubit rods that are known yield 20–65 01; and now from the earliest monuments we find that the cubit first used is 20–62, and the mean value from the seven buildings named is 20–63  b .02-. … On the whole we may take 20– as the original value and reckon that it slightly increased on an average by repeated copyings in course of time. (pages 178-179).

3. Greek and Roman Comparisons

In the writings of Eratosthenes, the Greek σχονος (schoe′nus) was 12,000 royal cubits assuming a 0.525 meter. The stade was 300 royal cubits or 157.5 meters or 516.73 feet. Eratosthenes gave 250,000 stadia for circumference of the earth. Strabo and Pliny indicated 252,000 stadia for the circumference and 700 stadia for a degree [1317]. Reports of Egyptian construction indicate only a 0.04 inch difference between cubit of Snefru and Khufu pyramids according to Arnold [13] and Gillings [17].

Lelgemann [1819] reported the investigation of nearly 870 metrological yard sticks whose lengths represent 30 different units. He argues for the earliest unit, the Nippur cubit, to be 518.5 mm. Lelgemann gives the ancient stadion = 600 feet and reports the stadion at Olympia at 192.27 meters which he believes is based on the Remen or old Egyptian trade cubit derived from the Egyptian royal cubit (523.75 mm) and old trade cubit = 448.9 mm.

Nichholson [20] in Men and Measures devoted a chapter to The story of the cubit. His summary (page 30) provided comparative lengths to five cubits as shown in Table 4.

Nichholson proposes a long history of the cubit beginning before the time of the Great Pyramid of Kufu c. 2600 BCE. He claims a measure of 500 common cubits for the base side indicating only a six-inch difference from the base measure made by Flinders Petrie. He fixes the date of the royal cubit at about 4000 BCE. The great Assyrian cubit is dated c. 700 BCE. The Beládic cubit is dated c. 300 BCE. Nichholson fixes the Black cubit as fully realized at around the ninth century of this era which suggests a parallel to the growth and spread of Islam. While his measures for these variants of the cubit appear to dovetail with some of the other estimates given in this paper, there are serious questions about the chronological sequence associated with these variants. Nichholson offers no evidence or support for this sequence. His estimates of the common and royal cubits conform to other estimates, but the other values are less conforming.

Biblical Cubits To Feet

Distance from the elbow to the middle fingertip is one cubit. These days it’s pretty common for modern Bible translations to use metric or imperial measures. The ‘nine cubits’ mentioned in Deuteronomy 3.11 (the length of the giant King Og’s coffin) are translated as “nearly 14 feet” in the New English Bible, but “four meters” in the Good News Bible. It’s a shame that the old term is no longer used. We still don’t know what length was actually used. Siloam’s aqueduct was 1,200 cubits long, so this could be used as a starting point for a calculation. Its true measurement is 1,750 feet, or 1,193 cubits 17.6 inches in length (44.7 cm). Still, the term “cubits of the first measure” is used to describe the length of the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (II Chronicles 3.3). Either the Deuteronomy cubit of 52.4 centimeters or the Egyptian cubit of 20.63 inches is in mind here.

How Long Is A Cubit In Inches

The shorter Egyptian cubit is equal to six hands, while the longer Israelite cubit is equal to seven. “…archeology and literature suggests an average length for the common cubit of 44.5 cm (17.5 in. ),” states Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible [7, page 1373]. The cubit is variously measured between 42 and 48 centimeters (17 and 19 inches) according to this citation. Importantly, range reveals the working variation of this measure. Multiple factors are at play when there is variation.

Cubit to Inches

The actual length of a cubit varied between different ancient groups of people. Here are some samples from Egypt, Babylon, and ancient Israel:

Hebrew17.5 in
Egyptian17.6 in
Babylonian Long19.8 in
Hebrew Longest. 20.4 in
Egyptian Long20.6 in

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